Ye’i and Ye’i Bi Chei Weavings

A detail from a 1950\'s Shiprock Ye\'i

Above: A 1950’s handspun Shiprock Ye’i dyed with vegetal and aniline colors

People who aren’t familiar with Navajo weaving often confuse Ye’i and Ye’i Bi Chei weavings.  The Ye’i design depicts the Diyiin Diné’é (Holy People) directly and they are always shown facing the viewer and are often surrounded on three sides by a Rainbow Ye’i. Ye’i figures with angular heads are female while those with rounded heads are male.

A Ye’i Bi Chei weaving depicts participants in an event, people who are assuming the dress and function of the Ye’i for the purpose of a healing Nightway ceremony popularly called a Ye’i Bi Chei Dance.  This design shows the figures in profile as you can see in the example below (photo courtesy of Doren Indritz).  The dancers wear kilts, traditional moccasins, foxtails and blue masks.  The medicineman or hatałi stands at the left and  the figure at right is a clown called a water sprinkler.  Ye’i Bi chei rugs can also show the patient and female as well as male dancers.

A Ye\'i Bi Chei design.  (photo by Doren Indritz)

Both Ye’i and Ye’i Bi Chei weavings are considered taboo by many weavers, and weavers have ceremonies to protect themselves from back and vision problems that are said to be associated with weaving the designs.  One of my friends paid $10,000 to have a protective ceremony but didn’t feel well once she started the weaving and decided to take down the rug and bury it.

The Ye’i and Ye’i Bi Chei design family includes many variations, some of them very contemporary.  One of my favorites is called a Cloud People design by Regina Bia.  As as far as I know, Regina is the only person who weaves it.  A picture of one of Regina’s Cloud People weavings done in 2006 appears below courtesy of Doren Indritz.  I like the spare uncluttered feel of the figures against the night sky.

Cloud People design by Regina Bia

An Early Ye’i Bi Chei Weaving

A Yei Be Chai weaving dating to the early 1900\'s

The handsome weaving above was offered at the Smoki Museum Navajo rug auction last weekend.  It’s the earliest depiction of a Ye’i Bi Chei dancer that I’ve seen and I thought you might enjoy a look at it too.  It dates to the late 1890’s or early 1900’s and is done in the style of a weaver named Yanapah Simpson.  Yanapah was married to a trader and lived in Farmington, New Mexico, but traders in Lukachukai, Arizona and Shiprock, New Mexico were also known to have encouraged the weaving of figural rugs during this period.  The dancer is surrounded by Valero stars, an influence from Rio Grande weaing, and a very lifelike deer.  The weaving skill in this piece is phenomenal, with crisp, straight lines and sides and wonderful detailing in the kilt and deer figure.

These pieces were quite controversial at the time with many Navajo people believing that depictions of deities and ceremonies should be off limits as weaving subjects, particularly when they were offered for sale.  This belief still persists among many weavers and those who weave Ye’i and Sandpainting rugs often have ceremonies done to protect them from any ill effects.  On the other hand, I’ve also heard at least one weaver downplay the potential for trouble, saying “I’m a Presbyterian, so I don’t believe it’s a problem”.  For most Navajo people, however, these figures remain very powerful and a recent exhibit of Sandpainting rugs carried a warning that traditional Navajos might find the display offensive.

The Ye’i Bi Chei are also called Winter Gods and Grandfather Spirits (which is what the name means in Navajo) and are the focus of healing ceremonies held in the Fall and early Winter.  During these ceremonies, the dancers take on the role of intermediaries between the gods and the human race.  The ceremony continues over the course of several days, with some portions open to the public.  The most accessible of these is held in early October at the Shiprock Fair.